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The walls around us, p.22

The Walls Around Us, page 22


The Walls Around Us

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  I wanted to say no. No, to all of it. Especially to meeting someone, because why. Because who.

  “What about you?” I said instead.

  “What about me?” She sat with her legs crossed on the bottom bunk. All the surrounding gray brought out her eyes. “I’m basically never getting out,” she said. “Not until I’m like forty-five. You know that.”

  I did. At least, it was what the court had determined for her. Once her juvenile sentence was over, she’d be transferred to serve out the rest of her time with the most violent adult female offenders the state could serve up. That was what happened to us when our days at Aurora Hills were over and our time was longer than could fit in here. She would become an adult in prison—like I’d thought I would. She’d be nothing like the person she was now. In thirty years, I wouldn’t even recognize her.

  I wasn’t sure if she looked ahead at her life inside and wanted what I’d told myself I’d wanted, which was a place to call my own within these cold stone walls.

  All She Knew

  ALL SHE KNEW was that she was trying to help. Ori had returned the library cart to me—or so she thought, as my transfer from the kitchen still hadn’t made it through all official channels. With my release date on the books, I wasn’t sure it would in time.

  Nothing in Aurora Hills was ever so easy. Some efforts felt endless, and others turned around whip-fast so we kept looking over our shoulders, checking to be sure it was true. All actions here had consequences. It was only a matter of when.

  Ori started returning from afternoon yard duty with the plants she must have promised Peaches in exchange for my cart. Day after day, she managed to transport bits and pieces of the vines inside to hand over, and not one of the guards heard the rustling inside her jumpsuit when she walked past their stations or noticed the petals she’d sometimes shed on the stone floor, pinkened with pigment and gummy enough to stick.

  She’d meet Peaches, do the handover, and then Peaches would come swinging by, lingering at the doorways to our cells or in the hallway outside the woodshop, and those of us who wanted what she was selling would offer up items from our canteen accounts, or make promises we wouldn’t have the time to keep. There were many ways to come up with payment.

  Some of us were seeking escape, even more so after the night the locks malfunctioned and let us loose, and then took it all back and said never mind. But I didn’t want to be numbed up with any drug, the way Peaches and her crew wanted us all to be, the way D’amour used to long for, probably still does. I wanted my mind clear.

  I thought it was.

  But the memory was there. It was hanging around the corner, waiting.

  I saw the haze that enveloped so many of the girls around me, and a certain saccharine scent that lingered after one of us had succumbed. The drug made us forget. I wondered what would happen if one of us took too much—would we remember? And remember what?

  Peaches accepted what was owed, but that didn’t keep her from holding it against one person, and that person was me. It was midweek, a handful of days away from my release, when she shoved into the cafeteria line in front of me and grabbed the top tray and the closest cup, which was the red cup. She took her time in the line for slop, chatting, sucking her bottom lip, stretching out her back and scratching a roaming itch.

  I couldn’t push, and I couldn’t tell her to keep moving. These were rules so well-known among us that they didn’t need to be written. Power was taken here, and once it was solidly in hand, those of us who didn’t make a grab for it, or who did and missed, were bowled over, mown down. She may as well have been standing on my prone body, a foot jammed in the back of my neck, her arms raised in a victory V.

  I stood in line behind her and waited for her to move on.

  “What?” Peaches said to me, about-facing to shove her jaw in my direction.

  “Nothing,” I said under my breath. There was no other response to make in this situation. If I said another word now, anything at all, even something silly to make a joke of it, I’d risk losing one or more of my front teeth. I’d been here for years and still had all my original teeth. I was hoping to keep them.

  “No, what?” Peaches said. “What were you going to say, what?”

  “Did she say something?” Jody joined in, many heads taller than both of us and casting us in shadow. “What’d she say?”

  “I didn’t.”

  They stared me down.

  “I didn’t say anything.”

  I’d gone around their backs. That was what Peaches and Jody were communicating to me. I had my precious book cart, didn’t I? So was I happy now? How happy? Because if I was too happy, they’d go ahead and make me miserable, as only the happiest among us deserved to be.

  I left my unfilled tray like I wasn’t even hungry and headed for the table where I usually sat with girls from B-wing. When I approached, it emptied, leaving only my cellmate, Ori, who looked to me in question. She tried to share her food, but I shook her off. It was coming. Retaliation.

  More and more of them had turned against me. I was used to them letting me be, ignoring me so I could sidle in and listen to what they said, catalogue, mull over, keep for later. But a line had been drawn, and Peaches and Jody were on one side of it. I found myself on the other.

  I was in the library during free time, sorting the books, dusting their spines and jackets, wiping clean their glossy faces, and straightening their bent corners. It wasn’t officially my life-skills job anymore, but I couldn’t help wanting to keep things nice.

  The stomping sound of their approach startled me. I set down a stack of books.

  “Hey there,” Jody said. Peaches grinned. I knew then to cover my head.

  It was Jody who delivered the first blow. She didn’t use her fists—she had her fingers gripped in a white sock, and weighted down in the hanging toe of the sock was something heavy. It could have been a bar of soap. A hunk of brick. It could have been the smallest book on our shelves, one of the pocket classics. All I knew was that it hurt on impact and gave a good pounding.

  Peaches came next, and the socks in her hands were two.

  I curled into the smallest shape I could make myself, which wasn’t so small. Tucked my head in, wanting to keep my teeth. There was the feeling of everything—and the feeling of nothing, which I guess comes when the pain is too much and you pass out.

  Maybe that was when I decided to do something, hovering in that state halfway between waking to consciousness and being blacked out. Because even then, even after this, I knew where I belonged in the sea of all the earth’s strangers.

  Where we all belonged.

  What justice might look like, if I were the one to wield it, inside these walls, where no one used to look at me or pay me much attention, but now for sure they would.

  How inevitable it felt, how perfectly timed and carved out to fit the pieces together without any gaps between. It was as if I had the key to every last lock.

  I stood, wavering. I gathered up the rest of the breaths sifting around in my lungs and made a rhythm of them. I braced myself against a bookshelf, and then I let go.

  I stopped in our cell in B-wing on the way, and maybe I knew what I was doing and where I was going because I’d done it before, and maybe I knew nothing. We all wished we could plead “not guilty.”

  I made it, somehow, to the kitchen. It was a Thursday afternoon, or a Tuesday, but surely afternoon, and I was due for my life-skills assignment in the kitchen. I found myself in the back near the burners, as I knew I would. I found myself stirring the peas. The pot of peas. The peas were supposed to be green, but they looked more gray. The swirl of gray-green in the pot. The spoon gripped in my hand. The spoon making circles. The circles of the spoon.

  Maybe that was what got my memory circling, then clearing and starting to show something visible there, down at the bottom, crusted like the burned base of the pot and not coming loose from the spoon. Something I forgot. Something I’d been trying to remember, all this time

  The pot itself was enormous, large enough to cook a human stew. The spoon was as long as a hunting spear. My arm ached, and parts of my face pulsed, and one of my eyes wouldn’t open all the way. Somehow, nobody in the kitchen noticed. They saw what they wanted to see. Outside, in the world beyond Aurora Hills, I’d heard it’s even worse.

  The noise and activity of the kitchen roared all around me. There was Kennedy, doing dishes, her hands too deep in the suds to yank off some of her hair for eating. I still didn’t know her crime, but I felt for sure she must have been guilty. There was D’amour. Had she gotten out of the infirmary and assigned a new cellie? Or did she have special permission to return her own meal trays? She sloped past, a loose bandage trailing the floor. No question she was guilty. Natty dumped a tray of cups in the vat, nodded, moved on. One of the cups was the red one, the one I still hadn’t found on my tray, though I looked for it every day. It floated to the top, shifting the others aside. Natty was guilty.

  A group of girls could be heard passing in the corridor—every last one of them was guilty. Out the window in the kitchen, I could see the barred windows of D-wing, filled with Suicides and anyone on restriction. Guilty.

  And myself? Guilty then, and still guilty today.

  I stirred the peas, gazing into the pot. There was nothing to see at first. Only the green peas and the gray.

  Then there was more and more gray. A different kind of gray. Gray like the stones that stacked to make our walls were solid and gray. Gray like white paint after so many years of being allowed to stay dirty. Gray like a girl’s heart when she’s been forced to reckon with what she’s done and no one believes she really is guilty. That kind of gray.

  Then I realized why. It was how my head was turned, toward the ceiling. How I was looking up instead of looking down, at all of us.

  There was something below me, something wanting my attention. My eyes drifted and flickered, seeking focus. One wouldn’t stay open, but the other saw fine.

  My nose took a whiff of the abominable smell.

  When I turned my neck, slowly, the tendons creaking as if I hadn’t used this part of my body in years, I could see the feet first. Our feet. Our canvas slip-on shoes—they were white, but white never stayed white for long in this place, so really they were gray. Some of them were splayed on the tiled floor, some had been lost in the shuffle, and some were there, wedged on. The feet of so many girls I recognized—from C-wing and A-wing and B-wing—all dropped to the floor as if we were playing a game and that game was pretending to be dead.

  Where was I among them?

  I sifted through the crowd, looking down on all of them, far enough away to not get the mess on me, but not far enough to escape the stench. It was rotten, and it was also sickly sweet. It was terrible, rising up to choke all my senses.

  These girls weren’t playing. This was the cafeteria, where we gathered three times a day to eat our meals, those of us who weren’t on lockdown in Solitary. There were the tables and the trays, but there was none of the usual din. There was no noise. I could see Little T. in a seat at the end of the table. She was slumped over the side of her stool, head to her knees so her face was hidden. Her arms were slack and hanging, but her fingers were still clasped tight around the handle of a plastic spoon.

  Peaches had fallen face-first onto the green floor, her hair flung up over her head to reveal the tattoo on the back of her neck that she’d always kept hidden. It was a braided series of flowers, feathery and delicate, really quite beautiful. The spittle coming from her mouth was green, too, and all that green brought to mind the forest that surrounded our compound, the climbing vines from the garden and grounds where Ori worked, the drug so many of us ingested that summer, giving us green-hued dreams and green crusty eyes in the morning, all the green in this gray place that hid us from the law-abiding world.

  We were a part of this place even more now. We were as essential to its continuing existence as the moss and the grass and the trees.

  There was Cherie. She’d fallen backward off her stool, and in the drop, which must have been sudden, and which landed her on another sharp-edged stool behind her, she’d broken open her skull. So the green goo spewed from her mouth, but pooling around her neck, coming out of her ears, was red. And green and red make brown.

  All this I took in without emotion, as if petty things such as feelings had been carved out of me the way melons get scooped of their seeds.

  If I could only remember where I was sitting and eating dinner that day, I’d be able to find where I fell.

  I drifted over the aisles, plugging up my nose as I went. The fallen trays scattered the little things everywhere, and they were round, so they rolled. Some had been mashed into paste, but many were still intact and kept rolling across the tile, all the way to the outer ends of the room and back again, like more than my memory was sloshing.

  Once-green, but gray because they came out of cans. Peas.

  But mixed with what? With the mashed-up pulp of that plant we’d never found a name for because it wasn’t in any of our books? Shouldn’t that just give us hallucinations, like before, trips to the sky and back and faint heart murmurs, fits of giggles? Did anyone know it could do so much more if too much of the stuff was mashed in? Didn’t anyone notice how sweet the peas tasted that day, how sugary and almost delicious, like gumdrops mixed with dirt?

  And then I remembered who’d been at the pot, stirring. I remembered my own arm, my own hand. Shouldn’t I have known there was something wrong with the peas? Or had I known all along?

  Someone was approaching, and joined me by the trash pails. The scorch marks on her face hadn’t fully faded, so she hovered there, lavender in hue.

  “You’ve gone and done it now,” D’amour said, though without surprise, like she’d known all along this was coming. “Now we can’t ever leave.”

  We couldn’t ever leave. I hadn’t been able to face that D’amour was seeing our future before, but she must have seen this. So had I. I’d just forgotten.

  The doors were open now, the locks were undone, and we couldn’t go.

  I looked around once more. I was mistaken about the gray, because when I blinked, it was gone.

  Where there had been gray walls, there were green-growing vines, and where there had been partitions and cordoned-off sections to keep inmates from roaming too far out of sight of the COs, there were open, shaggy spaces of field. There were gaps in the fence that would let a whole herd of us escape into the forest. There were graffiti tags on what was left of the cinder-block walls, showing all the strangers who had snuck in here. This place had come falling down, and all that was left was us now. We girls poisoned to death during dinner by one of our own, we’d be here longer than these walls would be left standing.

  “Who did this?” I was asking D’amour. “Did you do this? Did I?”

  She shook her head. She was caught up in it, staring as if we were fresh off the blue-painted bus, here to observe one of the Great Wonders of the World.

  I shouldn’t be here. I’d been released—in days, I was supposed to be taken out front and let go. I was going to be issued street clothes. They’d have to give me real shoes, and I’d walk out onto the sidewalk in those shoes. They were going to let me out, in the care of my mother. I was supposed to see September.

  They might as well have backed me up against the rear of the building and had me shot in the head by a firing squad. The last time I was out there, in the world, I was thirteen. The last time I saw my mother, she’d turned her back on me like I was the bullet.

  I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want any of us to go, ever. Was that why I’d done it?

  That was when I saw the body by the far table. It wasn’t my own. The two long legs were clad in orange. One of the feet had lost a shoe, and the foot was bare and blistered with a bulbous, purple-callused toe.

  Hadn’t I told her never to eat the peas? Wasn’t that advice I’d given, her very first day?

  D’amour woul
dn’t say it, and the others, about to be awakened and risen to join us, none of them would say it, and my one good eye started tearing up so neither eye could see the cafeteria without blurs.

  Only one of us didn’t deserve to be here, not even for a night. Orianna Speerling was the only one who was truly innocent.

  It was all too much for me. My mistake. Facing my fate, which was all of our fates entwined as one, even hers. Seeing it plain. Seeing myself, even if I didn’t yet find my body.

  I was back at the pot again, stirring what would be our poison, and I couldn’t make myself stop.

  Because it had already happened.

  Because it is happening now, as I stand here. I’m watching myself stir the peas as we speak.

  And my skin goes electric. My entire body does. The kitchen, from end to end, lights up with the blaze of blue light that fried D’amour, boiling my memory, getting time confused, and my brain blackens into a wall without windows, and my body drops like one last bag of useless meat to the floor.

  This is what happens when I let myself remember what I did. It happens every time.

  We’ll Forever Be

  WE’LL FOREVER BE pointing fingers. Playing detective, to see who might be caught red-handed, overheard in telling a bald-faced lie.

  Peaches says it has to be Kennedy. Peaches found a hair on her tray, she says, a curly Kennedy-colored hair in her peas. Half of us want to point the finger at Kennedy, and if we had keys to our jail cells, we’d have locked her in Solitary long ago and shaved off all her hair. A couple of us say it was Annemarie, though with her kept in D-wing it’s impossible to say how she would have done it. Lots of us say it was Peaches, and many more say D’amour. None of us think it was Ori. If she helped someone else get to the vines, if she smuggled them inside one afternoon after her work in the garden, it was only for my benefit; she had no idea what anyone would do.

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